Ways of Seeing John Berger’s BBC Masterpiece

John Berger - Ways of Seing

John Berger in 2009

John Berger’s Ways of seeing was mandatory reading during my freshman year of art school in 1980. The book was based on Berger’s 1972 4-part documentary he created for the BBC. While it’s been out of print for many years, the original series can now be viewed on YouTube (ironic considering the subject matter). It’s still considered one of the most influential art programs ever made, and to this day is widely used as a teaching instrument in art schools.

In the first episode of Ways of Seeing Berger examines the impact of photography and reproduction on our appreciation of art. He distinguishes the difference in meaning between an original piece of classic European art, taken in its original context, to a modern reproduction which can be seen in not only a variety of locations, but formats as well. He shows how and why modern methods of reproduction and communication have theoretically changed the meaning of visual art.

“Because paintings are silent and still, and because their meaning is no longer attached to them, but has become transmittable, paintings lend themselves to easy manipulation. They can be used to make arguments or points which may be different, very different, from their original meaning. And because paintings are essentially silent and still, the most obvious way of manipulating them is by using movement and sound.”

Modern reproductions of classic art can make the original meaning ambiguous. For example they can be cropped so that a hunting scene becomes a picture of a family pet, a group of mourners an image of a pretty girl. These ambiguities can also be created or influenced by what comes directly before or after in a video (Ways of Seeing itself is no exception), and what’s presented on a page alongside in print. Reproductions allow us to connect artwork to our own experiences and prejudices which can be entirely different from the original intention.

The following is a brief overview of the Ways of Seeing series:

Episode 1 – Berger examines the impact of photography on our appreciation of classic European art.

Episode 2 – Berger examines the portrayal of the female nude in European art. Do they celebrate women as they really are, or only as men would like them to be?

Episode 3 – Berger questions the value we place on the tradition of classic oil paintings as a medium to celebrate private possessions.

Episode 4 – Berger analyses the world of advertising and shows how it relates to the tradition of oil painting in moods, relationships and poses.

Each episode is roughly 1/2 hour in length. Bookmark this page and check them out at your leisure. Forty some years after their creation, they are still quite relevant.